Tuesday, 3 March 2015

The Doomed Marriage of Education and Poverty

The adage, ‘to be poor is a crime’ is quite familiar to most of us. However, poverty is much more. It can be argued that poverty is a form of punishment that delays and stifle the full potential of human development.  Poverty is a chronic and crippling condition that affects the mind, body and spirit of human beings. Poverty is a universal social condition which affects a significant number of the world’s population.  According to the World Bank, in 2011, seventeen per cent (17%) of the people in the developing world lived at or below $1.25US a day. This means that 1.4 billion people or twenty one per cent (21%) of the world’s population live in extreme poverty and this is most unacceptable.  Disturbingly, women and children account for a sizeable portion of those who live in poverty. Jamaica, like any other developing country continues to struggle with drafting measures to alleviate poverty. According to the 2012 Survey of Living Conditions published by the Statistical Institute of Jamaica (STATIN) more than 500,000 Jamaicans or one out of every five Jamaicans lives below the poverty line. This statistics speaks volume and requires governmental intervention in order for us to have and maintain sustainable development.
It bears thought that investment in education is the only way out to break the cycle of poverty which has entrapped and destroyed many Jamaican families.  It is well documented that many children raised in poverty enter school a few steps behind their more affluent peers. The cognitive stimulation parents provide in the early childhood years is crucial. The most critical years of a child’s development are from birth to age five. This is exactly why more focus and funding are required to scaffold the early childhood level to ensure that each such institution has a trained teacher with the necessary skills to mould these young lives. Our brightest minds should be at the foundation level working to stimulate the minds of the very young. However, in our society we tend to think otherwise. This increase in funding is necessary in order to bridge the socioeconomic divide in education which manifests itself at all national examinations from as early as the Grade Four Literacy Test where students of preparatory schools outperform their peers at the primary level of the education system.  
In January of this year it was announced that both Trench Town and Charlie Smith high schools would be merged resulting in the closure of Trench Town High school.  Interesting both schools are located in the volatile inner city community of Trench Town where unemployment and poverty are high. It is safe to say that a significant percentage of the students attending both institutions are from economically disadvantaged families.  Economically disadvantaged families are those with parents whose incomes are less than what is required to purchase and satisfy basic needs of food, shelter and clothing. The recent demonstration by students, teachers and parents associated with Trench Town High regarding the pending merger and the subsequently announcement by the Ministry of Education to delay the merger speaks to how ill conceive this policy has been. Merging both schools will not turnaround Charlie Smith. In fact the opposite will happen. Is it that the Ministry of Education plans to embark on a national merger of underperforming schools? According to the 2014 National Education Inspectorate (NEI) report more than sixty per cent (60%) of the country’s primary and secondary schools are failing in their education delivery to the nation’s children so clearly an amalgamation of underperforming schools is not the way to proceed. What is next? Are we going to see for example a merger of Denham Town and Tivoli Gardens High schools? Perhaps a merger of Kingston Technical High and Holy Trinity High will be next? 
Studies of risk and resilience in children have shown that family income correlates significantly with children’s success. Poor children are half as likely as well off children are to be taken to museums, theatres, or the library and they are less likely to go on vacations or on other fun or culturally enriching outings. (Bradley & Corwyn, 2002). 
Children raised in poverty are much less likely to have lack critical social skills. There are many emotionally dysfunctional students in our schools. This accounts for the fact why so many of our students get so frustrated easily. While children of the poor are enrolled in school, such students from poverty stricken backgrounds are more likely to drop out of school than their peers from affluent backgrounds. Many of our students especially in the inner city communities have little or no support and are being felt to the whims and fancy of chance to succeed.
We continue to do a disservice to the children of the poor at the secondary level. In a few months time hundreds of such students would have graduated from high schools without any form of certification. The truth is ever since the decision was taken to stop the Secondary Schools Certificate (SSC) Examination and the Caribbean Certificate of Secondary Level Competence Examination (CCSLC) many students from upgraded high schools sit no form of external examination. Of course there is the City and Guilds examination, however, this examination has little or no currency in the workplace and many students shun it. The Ministry of Education should invest a bit more in promoting the City and Guilds examinations. 
Poverty should not be an excuse not to succeed. However, poverty does impact the development of one’s brain and this will certainly impairs one’s success.
In 1934 Abraham Maslow developed a hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s theory asserts that students cannot be expected to function at a high academic level when their basic needs for food, shelter, medical care, safety, family and friendship are not met.  It can be argued that a significant percentage of our children struggle on a daily basis to have their basic needs met. There are many students who attend school daily without having breakfast. In fact the Programme Advancement through Health and Education (PATH) was developed by the Government of Jamaica as a social safety net to address the nature of Jamaica’s poverty.  Poverty in rural areas is very much different from urban poverty. According to the 2012 Survey of Living Conditions thirty six per cent (36%) of rural communities in Jamaica rely on untreated sources for water.
However, the human spirit is able to overcome adversities.  The good news is that being raised in poverty is not a sentence for a substandard life.  Many students have and will continue to succeed despite the odds. Nevertheless, the government must do more to alleviate and empower the poor within the society. A more concerted effort is required by policy makers to ensure that no child is left behind.   
In the words of Nelson Mandela: Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity; it is an act of justice. 
Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and or gender issues.